Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea

5 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2018 Last revised: 3 May 2018

See all articles by Joseph Magnet

Joseph Magnet

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: February 27, 2018


Eritrea borders the southern Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. It emerged as an Italian colonial construct in the nineteenth century, which was superimposed over indigenous populations. Eritrea’s current population is between 4.4 and 5.9 million inhabitants. There are at least four indigenous peoples: the Afar (between 4 and 12%), Kunama (2%), Saho (4%) and Nara (>1%). These groups have inhabited their traditional territories for approximately two thousand years. They are distinct from the two dominant ethnic groups by language (four different languages), religion (Islam), economy (agro and nomadic pastoral), law (customary), culture and way of life. All four indigenous groups are marginalized and persecuted. The current regime waged a thirty year national liberation struggle which succeeded in a taking power in 1991, and effected secession from Ethiopia in 1993 to form a new State. A form of Eritrean nationalism emanates from the two large ethnic groups which control power and resources. It is based on suppressing sub-state identities which the elites see as threatening to the nation building process. In particular, the indigenous peoples have been pressured by the government’s policy of eradicating identification along regional and religious lines. The regime expropriates indigenous lands without compensation, and has partially cleansed indigenous peoples from their traditional territories by violence. The existence of indigenous peoples as intact communities is under threat by government policies aimed at destroying indigenous cultures, economies, landholdings and, for some, their nomadic and pastoral lifestyles. Eritrea is a party to the CERD, CEDAW and CRC but not to ILO Convention 169 or the UNDRIP. It is the subject of complaints to the UNHRC (which has sustained the allegations) and to the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples. The complaints allege mass murder, ethnic cleansing, displacement of indigenous peoples from their traditional territories and intentional destruction of the indigenous economy.

Suggested Citation

Magnet, Joseph, Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea (February 27, 2018). Ottawa Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2018-09. Available at SSRN: or

Joseph Magnet (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5

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